The finger-pointing continued on Monday over the weekend’s fatal bus crash, with a drivers’ representative lashing out at bus company bosses for allegedly exploiting staff without providing professional training for those who needed to drive new routes.
But KMB, Hong Kong’s largest bus operator, insisted its drivers were adequately trained.
Lai Siu-chung, deputy director of the Motor Transport Workers General Union’s KMB branch, launched a scathing attack on the company, saying it bore a fair share of the responsibility for the accident that left 19 people dead and more than 60 injured.
Attention earlier fell on the bus driver, who surviving passengers said has been “throwing a tantrum” before the crash, after being late and getting the blame from impatient passengers. He was arrested for dangerous driving causing death and dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm.
But Lai told a radio programme on Monday: “The KMB senior management can’t evade their responsibility for this incident … The company only knows how to take care of its corporate image and earn money, but it neglects a lot of important matters.”
The crash took place on Saturday evening, when a KMB bus travelling from Sha Tin racecourse towards Tai Po suddenly swerved and flipped on its side while making a turn near Tai Po Mei.
As of Monday morning, 38 victims remained in hospital, of whom six were in a critical condition while another 14 had serious injuries.
“Since KMB overhauled its senior management, the company has launched a lot of [cost-cutting] measures … It sacked a lot of middle- to lower-rank management as well as the supporting manpower for drivers,” Lai said.
“That’s why the drivers hold a lot of grievances and have a poor sense of belonging to the company.”
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In particular, Lai accused KMB of failing to provide professional training for drivers assigned new routes. Instead, drivers were asked to rely on their observations as passengers to learn the route, he said.
“For those assigned to the new routes, they were told to take only two passenger trips to get familiar with the new routes. There was no driving instructor to actually teach and train them on a bus about how to drive the new routes smoothly,” he said. “There was no training at all, but the company insisted it was done. The company was telling a blatant lie.”
Lai also accused KMB of neglecting quality control of part-time staff. Out of its 8,300 drivers, about 560 were part-timers, with 80 per cent of them aged over 60 as they were rehired after retirement.
“The remaining 20 per cent of part-timers may have many jobs at the same time. Would there be a common issue of driver fatigue among them? But KMB never cared to monitor this situation,” he said.
Ringo Lee Yiu-pui, chairman of the Institute of the Motor Industry, echoed Lai’s concerns.
“We need to raise concerns that when part-time drivers are not familiar with new routes, this won’t safeguard road safety,” he said.
Lee also pointed out that the Tai Po highway is a high-speed road with a speed limit of 70km/h, but there are many slopes and turns where drivers need to slow down. He called on the government to review such dangerous locations on high-speed roads and put up signs to remind drivers to reduce their speed.
Representatives of KMB attended a special meeting of Tai Po District Council on Monday morning, along with councillors and officials from different government departments.
Before the meeting, attendees stood in silence for about a minute to pay respects to the victims.
The KMB representatives bowed twice and apologised to all victims and their families.
KMB managing director Roger Lee Chak-cheong said an investigation committee formed by the company had held its first meeting and would submit a report within a month.
Applicants applying as full-time drivers must possess a driving licence for a car or light goods vehicle. Patrick Pang Shu-hung, KMB depot general manager, said further training was offered to bus drivers before they started ferrying passengers.
“There will be eight days of driving training for eight hours each day. Afterwards they are assessed by the Transport Department for a bus [driving] licence,” Pang said. “After a driver gets a licence, there is another eight to 10 days of training, including route training.”
Pang said requirements for drivers hired on hourly rates would be stricter, as they had to first possess a licence for a public or private bus. They would then be given route training.
He also cited full-day workshops for staff who had worked at the company for six months, at which they could discuss work problems.
KMB previously confirmed that the driver in the latest crash had been involved in an accident in August 2014 and was convicted of careless driving. When reporters asked Lee how many drivers in the company had a similar history of careless driving, he did not answer directly, saying he did not want to add too many details as judicial proceedings had begun.
Asked how KMB ensured the good character of part-time drivers, Lee said the company had a mechanism in place to review driving records through devices installed on buses.
“Transport safety is our top priority. No matter [whether] it is drivers’ character or driving attitude, we also put that in first place,” Lee said.
During the meeting, several councillors proposed that the government improve road safety design at the section where the accident happened. Suggestions included reducing the speed limit from 70km/h to 50km/h and installing speed cameras.
Commissioner for Transport Mable Chan said the government had been conducting regular reviews of road safety and speed limits, and that there were many factors to consider.
“Factors to consider would include the frequency and nature of accidents on the road concerned, as well as its design and environment,” Chan said. “If there is any change in speed [limit], we also have to consider the impact on drivers.”